August 20, 1533
"What the devil are you doing?" the little red-haired girl demanded as two burly farmers lifted the oak dresser.
Ignoring her, the men hauled the dresser outside and came backupstairs for a bedstead. Bess Hardwick put her hands on her hips and commanded, "Stop!" When they did not obey her, she stamped her foot and cursed them soundly.
Clutching her rag doll closely to her chest, she ran downstairs and literally staggered with shock when she found the rooms empty. She rushed outside and saw the oxcart filled with her family's possessions. Though visibly upset, her mother stood by passively, as did her older brother and her sisters.
"No! Noooo!" Furiously, Bess ran to the wagon and began to unload their belongings. She managed to pull down a wicker linnet cage, but the rest of the furniture was tied down and far too heavy for her to budge. The little redhead threw herself on the ground, kicking her heels and screaming at the top of her lungs, in a royal tantrum.
"Do ye want me to tan her arse, missus?" one of the men asked.
"No, no. Bess has an overabundance of passion. She feels things more deeply than others. There is nothing any of us can do--it just has to run its course before she can stop."
Bess Hardwick was in a full-blown rage, but rage was the only thing that kept her sickening fear at bay. First her father had gone and then the servants; then one by one the farm animals had disappeared. The best pieces of furniture had been sold, and now they were losing their home. Where would they go? How would they live? Where would they sleep? What would they eat? One uncertainty piled on top of another, becoming a mountain of stark, cold terror.
Bess was ready to fight, ready to take on the entire world, but the rest of her family had no fight in them.
"Come along, Bess, we cannot stay at Hardwick, it is no longer our home," her mother said, gently pulling her to her feet.
"I'm not going!" she cried stubbornly as she sat down in the dusty road, glaring daggers at her family.
After a full minute's wait, Elizabeth Hardwick nodded for the driver to start. "Bess will follow; she has no other choice."
The imp of Satan sat, unyielding as the Rock of Gibraltar, as the wagon descended the hill, getting smaller and smaller, then finally disappearing down the rutted track. When she found herself alone, with no audience but the bird and her rag doll, Bess opened the door of the wicker cage. "Well, at least you don't have to leave. You may live here forever." The linnet hopped out of the cage and flew up into a large oak.
Bess got to her feet and went to stand in front of the half-timbered house where she had been born. She spoke to it, never doubting that Hardwick Manor could hear and understand every word. "You are mine! Don't be sad. I will be back to claim you. The rest of them are useless. It's going to be up to me!"
Bess's father had died and left her when she was four, but she remembered standing with him in front of the house on this very spot. She could still feel his hand on her shoulder and hear his words in her ear: "Land is wealth, my wee lass. Land and property are the most important things on earth. Hardwick! Even our family name comes from the land. Hang on to Hardwick, Bess, no matter what."
Bess swallowed the hot bile in her throat and dashed a hand across her nose and eyes, rubbing dirt into the snot and tears that ran down her face. She would be six on her next birthday, and six was far too old to cry. Bess looked at her doll. "Are you ready to go, Lady Ponsonby?" After pausing for a moment, she added reluctantly, "Then so am I." Feeling almost torn in half, she turned away from the house and walked stoically in the direction of the cart, clutching Esmeralda Ponsonby by her rag arm.
An empty feeling settled inside her and expanded until it filled her entire belly. Something warned her she had better get used to it; she doubted it would ever go away. Bess hadn't gone far when the linnet deserted the oak tree and fluttered after her, twittering in distress. Bess felt it alight on her head and make a little nest for itself amongst her fiery curls. "Foolish little bird," she muttered. "I wouldn't leave Hardwick if I were you."The Girl
London 1543Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Old time is still a-flying; And this same flower that smiles today, Tomorrow will be dying.
"Something glorious will happen today. . . . I feel it in my heart!" The corners of Bess Hardwick's generously shaped mouth lifted in a smile as her gaze traveled the entire length of the gallery of the grand London mansion. She had been with the noble Lady Zouche and her daughters for a year now, and that incredible year had changed her life forever.
When they had been forced out of Hardwick, her mother, Elizabeth, had taken refuge with her sister Marcella, who was also a widow. Bess soon grew very close to her aunt, recognizing that they were kindred spirits with strong, decisive personalities. At Marcella's instigation, the two sisters had put their heads together and concocted a plan. Listening to them had taught Bess that the most important goal in a woman's life was marriage and thegreatest lesson that could be learned was how to catch a husband Since Aunt Marcy was rather horse-faced, with a tongue sharp enough to clip tin, their mantrap had to be baited with Bess's more docile mother, Elizabeth.
In what seemed a remarkably short time, Elizabeth Hardwick captured the younger son of Sir Francis Leche of Chatsworth. Unfortunately, Ralph Leche, Bess's new stepfather, had little money of his own, and when the babies started to arrive, he had difficulty supporting them all. Even the house in Baslow village that Ralph leased from his father, Sir Francis, became overcrowded, especially after Aunt Marcy moved in to help with the children. So once again the sisters put their heads together to concoct a plan to improve their family's lot in life.
It had been nothing short of a miracle when the noble Lady Margaret Zouche decided to pay a visit to her country home at Ashby-de-la-Zouche. Elizabeth and Marcella had known Lady Margaret when they were girls because of some distant relationship, and they decided to visit her immediately to ask if one of the Hardwick daughters could be found a suitable position in her London household. Such service with a noble family was a traditional way for children of poor kinsmen to further their education and gain experience in running a vast household. When Lady Zouche indicated she was amenable to their request, the sisters rushed back to Baslow to make the monumental decision.
Which Hardwick daughter should be pushed from the nest to make her own way in the world? "Though it's an unpaid position, it is a God-sent opportunity to make useful connections for her future. Mark my words," Marcella prophesied, "Bess will be our salvation!"
Excerpted from A Woman of Passion by Virginia Henley. Copyright © 1999 by Virginia Henley. Excerpted by permission of Island Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.